By: Noah Wright
Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports
“King” Felix Hernandez was one of the top 5 starters in all of MLB when he was in his prime, but he’s far from that anymore. And unlike most starters once they start to put more wear on their arm and decline slowly, Hernandez has seemed to fall off a cliff, to the point where he is on the cusp of being a low pressure situation bullpen guy. It’s one of the steepest declines in recent MLB memory. Let's take a look at how it happened, because it’s one of the ones that seemed to be too sudden to blame on just injury.
Felix Hernandez was born on April 8th, 1986 in Valencia Venezuela. After High School, Hernandez signed with The Seattle Mariners in 2002, the team he is still with. Throughout the minors, Felix was a consensus top 30 prospect in 2004 and 2005 according to Baseball America (#30 in 2004, #2 in 2005), and it was well deserved. In his first professional season (low-A, and mid-A ball), Hernandez carried a 2.22 ERA, 2.60 FIP, and 1.145 WHIP in 69 innings. He also showed a good fastball that sat in the high 90’s with ok control (3.5), and good strikeout numbers (91, 11.9 K/9 rate). His second professional season was even better. In 149.1 innings between high-A and double-A ball, Hernandez had a 2.95 ERA, 2.73 FIP, and 1.199 WHIP. He maintained the high strikeout rate (172, 10.4 K/9), but also really improved his control (2.8 walks/9). After a short and impressive showing in Triple-A in 2005, Felix Hernandez would start his Major League career, with a call-up as a 19 year old. He showed great potential in his debut game on August 4th, 2005. Felix pitched 5 innings against The Detroit Tigers, only giving up 1 run, struck out 4, and walked 2, but received the loss. His overall rookie season was pretty impressive. A 19 year old King Felix pitched to a 2.67 ERA, 2.85 FIP, .996 WHIP in 84.1 innings, along with a 2.5 walk’s/9 and 8.2 K’s/9.
While he showed potential throughout his next 3 seasons, he wouldn’t have a true ace season until 2009, but it was one hell of a season. At 23 years old, Felix pitched to a 2.49 ERA, 3.09 FIP, and 1.135 WHIP in 238.2 innings. His perferials were pretty similar to his rookie season, with a 2.7 BB/9 rate, 8.2 K’s/9 rate, and .6 HR’s/9 rate. He also finished second in Cy Young voting. His 2010 season is one of his best seasons, but not his best. King Hernandez had a 2.27 ERA, 3.04 FIP, and 1.057 WHIP in 249.2 innings. Plus he struck out 232 batters. Felix was very consistent throughout his early years, posting another 2.5 BB/9, and 8.4 K’s/9 rate. Felix took took the next step in his career, winning The Cy Young that season to add on to his king-like season. Hernandez’s next 3 seasons would also present him as an ace level pitcher with a plus fastball, but his 2014 season has so far been the best of his career. In his age 28 season, Felix Hernandez finished the season with a 2.14 ERA (league leading), 2.56 FIP, and a league leading .915 WHIP in 236 innings. He also struck out a career high 248 K’s, and walked a tie-career low with 46 free passes. It was also his second 50 or less walk seasons with 200+ innings pitched, and 6th straight season with 200+ strikeout seasons. Hernandez’s last full productive season was 2015. That season was the start of a decline for Hernandez, but it would be extremely hard to predict what would come in the following seasons. Felix still produced a quality 3.59 ERA, 3.72 FIP, and 1.180 WHIP in 201.2 innings. However his Walk/9 and K/9 rate were almost the same to what they were to previous seasons (2.6, 8.5). Hernandez also reached 191 strikeouts.
The beginning of 2016 is probably the last time Seattle fans saw a consistently decent King Felix. For the first half of 2016, Hernandez had a 2.86 ERA, 4.04 FIP, and kept batters to just a .217/.306/.336 line in 63 innings. However, his first half was cut a bit short after he suffered a right calf strain, which would prove to hurt him further on in the season. The second half of 2016 looks more like the Felix Hernandez we watch today. He recorded a 4.47 ERA, 4.70 FIP, and gave up 13 home runs in 90 and a third innings. Overall however, Hernandez finished 2016 with a 3.82 ERA, 4.63 FIP, and 1.324, and his perferials dropped as well, to a 3.8 walks/9 and 7.2 K’s/9 rate. He also reached a high in HR/9 with 1.1, but it’s not his career high anymore. 2017 looked similar to the end of 2016. Hernandez greatly struggled, as he recorded a 4.37 ERA, 5.02 FIP (career high), and 1.292 WHIP. While his control and strikeout numbers returned to normal (2.7 BB/9, 8.1 K/9), his home run rate ballooned to 1.8, and gave up 17 home runs in only 86.2 innings. Felix also struggled with injuries again, only making 16 starts, and missing 2 months over a shoulder injury. 2018 has easily been the worst season of Hernandez’s professional career. So far on the season, Hernandez has a 5.55 ERA, 4.97 FIP, and 1.381 WHIP. He’s also given up a career high number of home runs at 24, and has walked 3.3 batters/9, the highest it’s been since 2008.
It’s easy to blame injuries for Felix’s downfall, but such a decline that started when he was just 30 years old seems too swift to blame on just injury. As time goes on, pitchers usually lose fastball velocity, and Hernandez is no exception. It went from a pitch that averaged around 95 MPH, to a pitch that averaged around 93 MPH, to a pitch that barely reaches above 91 MPH. The same can be said about his sinker, another pitch that he would rely on a lot in the prime of his career, but still relies on now. According to fangraphs, even though his sinker has fallen to sit around 90 MPH (and even that is being a bit generous), he has still used the pitch 32% of the time, compared to 5 seasons ago (2013) when he used the pitch 36% of the time at round 92.3 MPH. Another pitch that Felix still uses like he did in 2014 is his change-up, even though it has lost nearly 5 MPH since then. Hernandez also uses his curveball about 27% of the time, but throws it below 80 MPH. Plus it’s his most used pitch. I think that if Hernandez changes his pitching repertoire, and reworks some of his off-speed and breaking pitches, Hernandez can have a late career renaissance, something similar that CC Sabathia has had the last 2 seasons.
In the end, Felix Hernandez’s decline has been one of the fastest in recent memory. He went from a reliable veteran starter to a guy who can’t be relied on in high leverage situations in less than 3 seasons. However, he could make some adjustments, and maybe we will see a new and rejuvenated King Felix Hernandez, but only time will tell.